Iraq is Burning, and Everyone Agrees Maliki Has to Go

These are the seven men who could replace him.


The Obama administration and its most important Middle Eastern allies believe that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has to go. The question now is who will replace him — and whether that leader can unify his broken country against the existential threat posed by the Islamist militants advancing on Baghdad.

Secretary of State John Kerry made a rare visit to the semi-independent Kurdish region of northern Iraq Tuesday to gauge whether Kurdish leaders are willing to join a new unity government in Baghdad that would give more power to the Kurds and Sunnis, who Maliki systematically alienated. The head of the Kurdish Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, was decidedly non-committal. Now that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham have conquered much of Iraq, it is "facing a new reality and a new Iraq," Barzani said.

That new Iraq will almost certainly be led by someone other than Maliki, who is widely seen as too toxic. Maliki, a hardline Shiite, has feuded for years with the Kurds over how to divide Iraq’s oil riches and angered the Sunni minority by arresting the community’s political leaders, replacing skilled Sunni military commanders with Shiite loyalists, and cutting off funding to the Sunni tribal leaders whose fighters once helped U.S. military forces oust a previous iteration of al Qaeda from its strongholds in western Iraq.

"There is no chance of the elites coming together to confront the serious threat to the state that ISIS presents with Maliki at the helm," said Emma Sky, who served as the political advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno during his tenure as the top U.S. general in Iraq. "The best hope is that the elites agree on an alternative — they have the votes to do so."

Still, finding a replacement acceptable to all of Iraq’s sects and political parties will be an extraordinarily difficult task because of the number of boxes the potential leader must check. He has to be a Shiite, but not one as harshly anti-Sunni as Maliki. He needs the military know-how to repair Iraq’s battered armed forces and oversee a counterattack against ISIS. To top it off, he needs the diplomatic skills to work with both Washington and Tehran, despite the lingering tensions between the United States and Iran.

Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that a Maliki replacement also has to be drawn from the ranks of the prime minister’s Dawa Party to avoid alienating one of the country’s most potent and powerful political blocs.

The list of Iraqi prime minister contenders, in other words, is a short one. Below are the Iraqi politicians that U.S. officials, Western analysts, and Arab diplomats believe are in the running. (Click an image to start the gallery.)

Graphic: Tony Papousek/FP 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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